The Freedom From Religion Foundation goes after NASA for giving a grant to study theology

On Monday I described how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a U.S. government agency, gave a grant of $1.1 million to the Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI) for studying the religious implications of finding extraterrestrial life. The other partner who contributed money for this initiative is, of course, the John Templeton Foundation.

The theology aspect is prominent; as the CTI’s announcement noted:

Announcing the NASA grant, CTI’s director William Storrar said, “The aim of this inquiry is to foster theology’s dialogue with astrobiology on its societal implications, enriched by the contribution of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. We are grateful to the NASA Astrobiology Program for making this pioneering conversation possible.”

I considered this not only an unconscionable and ludicrous waste of money, but also a potential violation of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from advancing religion. When the First Amendment alarm bell goes off, my actions are automatic: I call the matter to the attention of the estimable Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which can judge if there’s a real problem.

In this case there seems to be. I have heard now from Andrew Seidel, one of the FFRF’s constitutional lawyers, who saw a problem and wrote the following letter to the director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute and Mary Voytek, a senior scientist at that institute—the agency that gave 5% of their yearly budget to theologians. The letter he sent is below (click to enlarge), or I can send you the pdf if you email me. Feel free to disseminate it; it’s now a public document.

The letter is unusually strong, I think, emphasizing the inability of theology to know anything or resolve any questions, and states clearly the Constitutional law ruling that the government cannot become engaged in matters of theology: “the government cannot fund religion’s pursuit of theological doctrines.” It’s an interesting letter, calling for NASA to take the money back and use it for less wasteful projects. I will of course keep readers informed.

Note also that the FFRF has submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to find out the details of how the grant was given.

I’m pleased to have contributed to the letter a bit about the relationship of science to religion, and perhaps that will be enough to earn me the Discovery Institute’s “Censor of the Year” award, something I dearly want to receive for the second time.

Anyway, congrats to the FFRF, the Official Website Secular Organization™, for being an attentive watchdog as religion tries to creep into our government. (You can join here for only $40 per year, which comes with a great monthly newpaper.) And shame on you, John Templeton Foundation, for wasting money in this way.

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  1. Geoff Toscano
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Much as I agree with pretty well every word in the letter, I’m not sure it was helpful to deliver quite such a ‘rant’. To my mind it was sufficient to finish with the point that the grant was unconstitutional.

    On the other hand, perhaps the writer was directing the letter to what he saw as a wider audience.

    • Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      This is a tactical decision which was carefully pondered by the FFRF.

      • p. puk
        Posted June 9, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        This is not the FFRF sending a letter to some redneck assembly about religious invocations or some hick high-school about the coach leading the team in prayer.

        Jesus H. F. Christ! This is NASA. The most eminent scientific organisation in the USA. If not the world.

        If any organisation should have known better, and if any organisation deserves the riot act read to them for such for having such poor judgement, it’s NASA.

        Such a screed sent to the aforementioned hillbillies might come off looking arrogant and be a waste of time/effort. Sending it to NASA is extremely appropriate. Amirite?

        My 30 pcs of silver.

    • nicholas.v
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      Add my congrats to the FFRF.

      No doubt that it is intended for the wider audience. If religion had been previously placed into it’s proper category there would be no need to constantly repeat the obvious.

      It has not, and the task is ours to complete. Is there any greater evidence for misplaced consideration than NASA funding a theological study?

      Absolute nonsense.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted June 9, 2016 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        Very astute!

    • Ralph
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      If the staff at NASA who made this funding decision were too ignorant to realize that it’s both a constitutional violation and a monumental waste of money when worthwhile research programs are under immense pressure, then I think it needs to be spelled out to them in no uncertain terms. This is our money as taxpayers.

      • AdamK
        Posted June 10, 2016 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

        It’s infuriating. NASA is terribly underfunded, and wasting its resources on this crap. Whoever made this decision should be fired with extreme prejudice.

    • Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      Firstly, I think it’s a great letter! I don’t consider it to be a rant, I think it rather shows a deep and passionate disappointment at NASA’s obvious nonsensical decision here. You know, like “How the dickens could you, of all organizations??”

    • steve oberski
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      Given that the non-religious in the US now outnumber any other religious demographic except for evangelical protestant, it is time for this interest group to stop coming to the table, hat in hand, and pleading “please kind sir, can we have our constitutionally granted rights ?”.

      I think the FRFF was unequivocally right in stating their position in no uncertain terms and, not requesting, but demanding their rights.

      If the non-religious want to start to be taken seriously in the marketplace of free ideas and the political arena it’s time to stop asking and to start demanding what is rightfully theirs.

      This is how it happened with other massive changes in the moral zeitgeist, for example the civil rights movement for black Americans and the demand for equal treatment under the law for the LGBT demographic and so it goes for the non-religious.

    • Posted June 29, 2016 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

      I see what you mean rantingness-wise. On the other hand he is writing to flippin NASA. A scientific organization. Scientists should already know this stuff. It’d be weird to leave it out.

      I especially like the comment about how we know how religions will react when/if extraterrestrials are discovered. Yes we do know. And I couldn’t help thinking ‘Hey, they’re Presbyterians. They’re not gonna run around shooting people in the streets’.😆 We really do have better things to spend money on.

  2. GBJames
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Excellent letter, IMO.

    • Ken
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink


    • Heather Hastie
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s great too! And I bet it’s exactly the way a fair number of people working at NASA feel. They have such limited funds, and have to beg for every penny from a government that often considers them a luxury, then they waste more than a million on effing religion! Un-effing-believable.

  3. Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Bravo for the FFRF for sending this powerful letter. It is astounding to me that NASA would approve such a blatantly religious grant.

  4. Scott Draper
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure the anti-theology diatribe was wise or helpful in the letter. I’m curious as to why the FFRF deviated from its usual approach this one time.

  5. Marilyn
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    I’m so proud to be a member of FFRF. It’s unbelievable the way religion has crept into our public schools, police depts and govt offices. FFRF has done an outstanding job in eliminating some of this illegal activity. Keep in mind that they don’t ‘but in’ on their own. It takes a complaint from a local citizen to get things going.

  6. Frank
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I wonder if Tyson has or will weigh in on this – if it comes to his attention? As someone keen to increase funding and appreciation of astrophysics, he should have strong feelings about this waste of money in an astrobiology program.

    • ijohnnyice
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      And Kraus among many others.

      • AdamK
        Posted June 10, 2016 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

        Maybe even Phil Plait will have the gumption to speak up this time.

  7. Ann German
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Speaking of the estimable FFRF, I have a photo of me holding F v F in front of the office in Madison last fall – how do I get it to you?

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      There’s an e-mail address on the Research Interests link at the top right of the page.

  8. nicholas.v
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your work on this, Jerry.
    And for keeping us informed.

    Very much appreciated.

  9. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Thank you very much for doing this, Dr. Coyne and FFRF. I sincerely hope this effort will earn you the coveted “Censor of the Year” Discovery Institute award. You deserve it. 🙂

    It is people like you who stand between a USA run by a Christian Dominionist theocracy and a USA continuing to be a world leader in human progress of all sorts.

  10. Posted June 9, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    The FFRF needs to send a copy of the letter to NASAs Inspector General and ask that this be investigated as an Anti Deficiency Act violation. Trust me on this one.

    ADA violations involve esoteric spending rules, but they are a big deal and are taken seriously. And they tend to get agency director attention due to required reporting to the president. The person who signed off on this contract might be personally liable for $1.1 million.

    • alexandra moffat
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      Anti Deficiency Act? Fascinating.
      How and when was the ADA created? How often used? Successfully? Misused??

      • Posted June 9, 2016 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

        The earliest version of the ADA was passed in 1870. It comes from Art I of the Constitution that says no money may be spent by the government without Congressional Appropriation.

        This is what is behind government shutdowns when Congress doesn’t pass spending bills. No authority to spend money means it is illegal to let employees come to work. The exceptions for law enforcement etc are based on other authority passed by Congress.

        There are volumes written about how to apply it. (GAOs Red Book if you need help with insomnia). In general, agencies must comply with purpose, time and amount. If Congress provides $1 million for salaries in 2015, the agency cannot spend $1 million plus 1 penny, cannot spend it in 2016, and cannot use it to buy computers.

        Any violation, large or small, means the agency head signs a letter to the President and Congress and lots of bad things happen. Feds take it seriously. Most violations are identified and reported by agencies.

        Unless NASA has legal authority to promote religion and violate the Constitution, this grant would seem to violate the purpose test.

        • Posted June 29, 2016 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

          Re kelpie98, zounds! Thank you. Is this also the kind of thing where the person who reports the government waste gets a monetary reward? Would the FFRF potentially get a percentage of $1 million? Like 900 grand? That would be so cool…

          I would also really, really like to see whoever at the Institute for Astrobiology or whatever it’s called who approved this to be fired. And made to march down all the steps from the Capital while people jeered at them. 😊 Seriously, there is no one working for NASA who does NOT know this was unconstitutional. 💸

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      I have to trust you on this, no US lawyer, but I added this to my shout out below.

    • Posted June 9, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Someone must be deficient at NASA to have okayed this grant.

  11. Posted June 9, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations to Dr. Coyne, FFRF and Andrew Seidel for bringing this to our attention and going after NASA. How could NASA not have known that they were violating the first amendment?! Since the Templeton Foundation and other such organizations can throw money at such Christian-oriented research, NASA may think they are untouchable. I hope we can prove they are.

  12. tubby
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the FRFF, especially on the point that researching the reaction of the religious to the potential discovery of life elsewhere is a waste of money for the reasons they state.

    And dear NASA, you do incredible things on less and less money. Why in the world would you waste any of that precious budget on navel gazing? Surely the Templeton Foundation can do that instead.

  13. rickflick
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I think NASA has a well funded and well staffed public relations department who think of the religious segment of the population as just one more constituent to placate in the broader effort to keep up NASA’s social presence and positive image. The legal office may be less well supported, or are ignored due to political pressures. Like the president’s “God bless…” at the end of every speech, it’s felt the extra support to the faithful is worth the small risk of a court battle. Maybe they will now begin to regret that approach.

  14. Kevin
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Well done WEIT and well done FFRF. If NASA wants to explain their reasons, they will have to shovel deep.

    I am imagining [NASA’s] administrators walking into a JWST lab and saying, “Let’s put the wrenches down boys and girls, we have the supernatural to help guide this thing to L2”?

  15. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I can’t avoid the quip that NASA is now exploring what Stephen Law calls “intellectual black holes”!🙂

  16. Historian
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Commenting on a previous post on this topic, I wrote that this project should in no way be funded with public money. But, I also expressed skepticism that the grant was unconstitutional because I did not see that it had anything to do with the establishment of religion. Not being a constitutional scholar, I was perhaps wrong in that skepticism. However, the FFRF letter did not assure me that the unconstitutionality of the grant is a sure thing. The letter cites cases that support the principle that government cannot fund religious projects. These cases seem to be related to government aid to religious construction projects. I am somewhat doubtful that the unconstitutionality of government aid to construction projects is analogous to grants for ostensible research endeavors.

    The CTI could argue (truthfully or not) that the research will be done objectively even though pro-religious organizations are deeply involved in it and, therefore, is not aimed at promoting religion. I have no idea how courts would react to litigation against the grant, but I would not be surprised if they ruled in NASA’s favor. So, I would caution the FFRF to think carefully before expending more resources on this incident. Perhaps the letter will serve the purpose of deterring NASA from getting involved in any future such foolish grants.

    • Posted June 9, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      Be aware that to be unconstitutional, the aims of the project don’t have to be to promote religion, but if that’s an important effect of the project, then that’s unconstitutional.

      If you’re not a lawyer I’d suggest that you not tell the FFRF whether they’re wasting their time or not. They have far more potential cases than they can pursue, and they’re interested in this one.

  17. W.Benson
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Everyone should congratulate and thank FFRF for giving NASA evangelicals hell.

  18. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    The quote from Thomas Paine is a wee bit out of context.

    It is immediately preceded by a strong defense of deism as promoting true piety and authentic religiosity. As such Paine is quite specifically attacking Christianity and not religion in general.

    The immediately preceding paragraph in “Age of Reason” is

    “Were man impressed as fully and as strongly as he ought to be with the belief of a God, his moral life would be regulated by the force of that belief; he would stand in awe of God and of himself, and would not do the thing that could not be concealed from either. To give this belief the full opportunity of force, it is necessary that it acts alone. This is Deism. But when, according to the Christian Trinitarian scheme, one part of God is represented by a dying man, and another part called the Holy Ghost, by a flying pigeon, it is impossible that belief can attach itself to such wild conceits.”

    and the paragraph cited starts with

    “It has been the scheme of the Christian church, and of all the other invented systems of religion, to hold man in ignorance of the Creator, as it is of Government to hold man in ignorance of his rights. The systems of the one are as false as those of the other, and are calculated for mutual support. The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches,…[as cited in letter from FFRF]”

    I’m still undecided as to whether this makes the Paine citation out of place in the FFRF letter.

    • Zado
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

      I personally don’t think so. Deism is effectively indistinguishable from secularism at the level of society/government, the level at which this debate is taking place.

      Deists and atheists might dither over the ultimate origin and nature of the universe, but they are united (or at least should be) in their opposition to any specifically theistic interpretations of reality or injunctions on society, be they Christian (as in this case) or Hindu or whatever.

      Plus, and I may be overreaching here: if Paine were alive today, post-Darwin and Einstein, he would almost certainly be an atheist.

      • Posted June 10, 2016 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        I tried to figure out once why Paine is in fact a deist, rather than an atheist. From what I can tell, the “universe has to come from somewhere, right?” was still stuck in his head and a weak version of the argument from design. (Like Jefferson, IIRC.)

        • Posted June 29, 2016 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

          Or Paine was just scared to be an ‘out’ atheist way back then. Possibly Deism just was cover. We shall have to get a Time Machine and find out.

          I absolutely believe if Paine were alive today he’d be an atheist. And now I want to see a movie about that! Tom Paine being shown around our modern society.😊

          And one tiny word for the mad Special Treatment for Christianity that this shows.😠

  19. Attila Csany, Ph.D.
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I agree completely. When we have no funds to combat Zika, this is an unconscionable, frivolous, and unconstitutional award.

  20. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Jerry, FFRF and the supporting members of FFRF! You have made me a very happy man. I did not know this was unconstitutional, and I hadn’t thought to check how relatively large a grant it was, it has completely slipped under my radar.

    I also have to join kelpie98 in asking for an investigation if it is an ADA violation, though I am no US lawyer and have to trust others on this.

    Realizing that FFRF has international ramifications at times, I judged the likelihood to be so remote I didn’t think there would be any utility to join. Now I have to rethink my strategy.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      I should add the clarification that I have a long time involvement in astrobiology.

      And that even if this doesn’t lead to NASA reconsidering (but I can’t see how not) it is the quick initiative that makes me see the day in Enlightened colors.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 9, 2016 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

        I should add the clarification that I have a long time involvement in astrobiology.

        Oh yes, I remember seeingyou n that astrobio forum on Farcebook, before I shut down my account.

        • Posted June 10, 2016 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

          Hmm… there are quite a few Torbjörn Larssons on Facebook …


          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted June 10, 2016 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

            At least one of whom responded appropriately to “Fancy meeting YOU here!” Or words to that effect.

  21. M&S
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    FYI, a counter argument from someone working in this field:

  22. kylefalcon
    Posted June 9, 2016 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    I really don’t see the issue here. The chances of astrobiology succeeding in finding much of value could certainly be debated but in the rare chance that extraterrestrial life is discovered it is certainly worth pondering its social and cultural implications. Seeing as over 80% of the world’s population identifies with a religion, if the government is going to fund astrobiology, funding humanities research on the topic seems perfectly sensible to me.

    • Posted June 9, 2016 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

      Interesting, but I saw nothing there to convince me thst this isn’t about appeasing religion or that the use of taxpayer funds is proper. This seems petfect for Templeton.

      Also, the author said “Coyne apparently has sicced the litigious Freedom from Religion Foundation on NASA”. That description of FFRf is typical of evangelicals. The author is biased.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

      The chances of astrobiology succeeding in finding much of value could certainly be debated but in the rare chance that extraterrestrial life is discovered it is certainly worth pondering its social and cultural implications.

      O the other had, one thing you (and anyone else) can be pretty damned sure of is that the first even modest hint from xenoplanetology, there will be certain people taking the implications for religious thought, donning a pair of nicely-sharpened crmpons, and indulging in an energetic pogo-dancing session on the (rapidly tattering) corpse of religion.
      Torborn – do you need a file for those dancing crampons?

    • Posted June 9, 2016 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

      Give me a freaking break. A grant to a secular organization, such as a university, to study the social and cultural impact of a SETI discovery, although a questionable use of scarce public science funds, is one thing, but a grant to the Center of Theological Inquiry is an outrageous violation of the First Amendment.

    • ploubere
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:15 am | Permalink

      I’d suggest re-reading FFRF’s letter, which clearly explains the constitutional and legal problems, as well as the pointlessness of such a project. Assuming you read the letter.

  23. ploubere
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    The letter is remarkably well crafted. My guess is that they’re presenting the legal argument they would make in court were it to come to that, and demonstrating their overwhelming advantage in precedent and logic. If NASA were smart, they would back down.

  24. Posted June 10, 2016 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    It says the grant was made in May 2015. Is that a typo and supposed to be 2016 or did it really take more than a year for this to come to light?

    • nicholas.v
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      The program is two years, 2015 to 2017.
      First year runs September 2015 to May 2016.

  25. nicholas.v
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Center of Theological Inquiry
    Mission Statement
    “We convene leading thinkers in an interdisciplinary research environment where theology makes an impact on global concerns, and we share those discoveries to change the way people think and act.
    The Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, is an ecumenical institute for interdisciplinary research in the field of religion. James I. McCord founded it in 1978 to cultivate a theological renaissance through dialogue. Our mission is inspired by McCord’s vision and values – dedication to scholarship, openness to new ideas, generosity of spirit, and commitment to fresh thinking.”

    • Posted June 29, 2016 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

      That sounds absolutely horrible. They want to change the way people think?!! And they never say in what particular way. The way something that was about racial equality, say, the whole equality thing and knowing the history of racist persecution in this country would guide what it was they wanted people to think. But in this they just don’t tell you anything.

      That means it is just a whole big bunch of Jesus. Standard-ass Christian theological notions. Which with their huge emphasis on how everyone’s a sinner are let’s say a little problematic. Stealth Jesoids.

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